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Filler: Casino closures on Long Island a bust for counties

Jake's 58 casino in Islandia on March 15,

Jake's 58 casino in Islandia on March 15, 2020. Credit: James Carbone

In June, as the coronavirus infection and death numbers in New York were waning, the six upstate casinos operated by the Oneida and Seneca nations opened up for business with limited capacity and new precautions. Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, in Connecticut, were also allowed to open in June, as were Pennsylvania’s casinos. And Atlantic City’s casinos began opening in the first week of July.

In this region, only New York’s non-Indian casinos and slot parlors remain closed, a fact that’s costing the state and Nassau and Suffolk counties a fortune in lost revenue. It’s also keeping people out of work and causing local gamblers to travel for their games. The heads of the Nassau and Suffolk OTBs don’t quite understand why they’re still shut or know when they’ll hear the slots ring again.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo provided some reasons for his decision Thursday morning in a call with reporters, arguing that casino use is too dense, that casinos may not comply well with COVID-19 regulations and, most importantly, that the essential nature of the business is non-essential. 

“A shopping center – people need food, people need clothes, people need home goods,” Cuomo said. “You don’t need a casino to maintain survival. I understand people in the casinos need jobs, but people in Broadway theaters need jobs. People in movie theaters need jobs. People in casinos need jobs. People in restaurants need jobs. People in bars need jobs. People in bowling alleys need jobs. People in gyms need jobs. So, it’s the essential nature and then the risk posed by the business.”

That’s not what Long Island’s OTBs, or their county executives, want to hear.

“We are ready to open at Jake’s 58, honestly,” Suffolk OTB President Phil Nolan told The Point, adding that the company that operates the 1,000-machine Islandia slot parlor and hotel for the OTB did a poll of regular customers and learned about 20% are now leaving the area to gamble.

Nolan has reopened his OTB branches, and says he can conform to rules about distancing and safety and cleanliness and limiting capacity. He doesn’t understand why malls and other large facilities can open but the Suffolk casino, which has put in the same air filtration system recommended for such facilities, cannot.

In Nassau, the county just got a quarterly check from its OTB that was a little bit late and a little bit light. Nassau OTB is supposed to pay the county $5 million per quarter out of what it makes on the 1,000 machines operated for it at Resorts World Casino in Queens, but for January-March only handed over $4.8 million. And Nassau OTB President Joseph Cairo says the next check will likely be for even less.

“Our contract with [Resorts World operator] Genting says we get $2.2 million a month, unless there is a material adverse event,” Cairo said. “This pandemic is a material adverse event, and that means Genting is only obligated to pay us $1,184,000 per month. And that means we cannot pay the county $5 million per quarter.”

In Nassau, county officials are wringing their hands over being shorted $200,000 for the first quarter, and expecting to be left even more in the lurch in the second, but it is hand-wringing of a uniquely political nature.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran sees debt refinancing and new borrowing by the Nassau Interim Finance Authority as the key to surviving the county’s pandemic-created budget shortfall. That hole could reach $750 million for  2020 and 2021. But the Republican-controlled county legislature is balking, and remains opposed to NIFA, which theoretically could be dissolved in 2026 when its final bonds would be retired, sticking around any longer.

But Cairo, the head of the Nassau OTB, is also the Nassau County Republican Party chairman. As such, he has significant influence with the GOP majority and could push them to approve the NIFA borrowing.

Right now, Presiding Officer Rich Nicolello is planning a public hearing on the NIFA moves for August, and says he’s not ruling anything out. Cairo is cagey about commenting on matters more governmental than political. How the issue moves forward could have a big effect on the 2021 election fight over the Nassau Legislature and the county executive race.

Of course, the Democrats running the counties, Curran and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, can do their own political whispering on casino reopenings, to a Democratic governor who has helped both before. Bellone told The Point Thursday he has done so, and Nassau officials confirmed they have done the same.

But Thursday, Cuomo signaled he’s not listening, yet.

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